Bobolink
Bobolink
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The terms ‘bird-watcher’ and ‘birder’ have slightly different connotations but are equally valid methods of seeing and learning about birds, through different approaches. One pundit concluded that bird-watchers look at birds while birders actively look for them. Competitive cross-country birding ventures expanded in the 1970s as people planned birding vacations involving hundreds or even thousands of travel miles. Despite occasional criticisms of adding to the globe’s “carbon footprint,” eco-travel conveys economic benefits to those areas visited. Remember that vagrant Great Black Hawk in Portland last winter? Visiting birders from afar added significantly to the city’s coffers for a few weeks. In some instances, nature tourism has tipped the economic metric in tropical regions facing broad-scale deforestation. Once a natural region attains high ecological value, its economic status and habitat preservation standards increase as well.

Birders and bird-watchers alike often keep life and year lists for their yards and favorite birding locales. Some go a step further by keeping “birding patch lists.” Patches consist of a natural and well-defined area, with boundaries set by the property limits or habitat breaks. Rough guidelines for patch sizes vary widely from transects of up to four to five miles to small tracts of neighborhood land that can be covered within a few minutes. All birds seen (or heard) are fair game to record; fly-overs are counted as well. Secondhand reports of birds by others are off-limits.

Without my realizing it, guess what? A rectangular 3-mile-long stretch of land I’ve birded with regularity for many years fits the definition of a birding patch! My particular patch is bordered by the Dragon Cement property on Route 1 in Thomaston, upper sections of Weskeag Marsh on Buttermilk Lane and the productive lush hayfields around the vicinity of the Finnish Church on Port Clyde Road.

My patch has certainly delivered some memorable sightings in its time. When I drive past the cement plant property, sometimes I notice darkish outlined silhouettes perched up on the tall towers — adult peregrine falcons. Falcons take advantage of lofty perches to rest, scan for passing prey and possibly rear young. And, sure enough, a resident falcon pair has nested amid the plant’s roof complexes this spring, reportedly with three fuzzy hatchlings.

With a rich array of aerial prey available, peregrine activity comes to life in the skies above Weskeag. I’ve witnessed spectacular tail-chase sessions as streaking falcons pursue shorebirds and waterfowl. On one occasion, I stood locked in place at mid-marsh as a scrambling blue-winged teal and a close-trailing peregrine rocketed straight at me. No time to move; the low-whizzing pair whistled past within a few feet as the duck made an emergency crash landing into the salt pannes, averting the attack by a split second.

Over several decades, Weskeag has rewarded me with 31 species of shorebirds. Most of the spring and fall migrants are the anticipated species that nest somewhere on the vast northern tundra — species of sandpipers, plovers, dowitchers, yellowlegs. Rarer species, like a Ruff from Eurasia and vagrant Black-necked Stilt, make surprise appearances there too. According to eBird data, Weskeag has hosted 210 species of birds at various times. And birding the summer hayfields along Route 131 pays special dividends of Bobolinks and Eastern Meadowlarks.

People connections are another aspect of a birding patch. I’ve met famous birders and many other folks in the marsh parking lot. Once I led a Russian contingent into the marsh terrain: two Soviet ornithologists, six teenage students, a videographer and television host of a popular Russian kids’ nature program with a viewership of 10 million. Yes, this patch of land has treated me well!